Rockism And Its Discontents

(Illustration by Alex Fine)

Hello, my name is Jonathan, and I am a rockist. (This is the part where everyone says “hello” back to me in a warm and welcoming fashion. What, like you’ve never been to an AA meeting?) Actually, I’m not really a rockist anymore; I just play one in this column.

For anyone who can’t distinguish a rockist from a sexist or a fascist, let me explain. It’s essentially a neutral term that’s been kicking around rock-snob circles for going on 20 years. As of late it’s been seized by Gen Y happy-asses to kick against the phallocentric old-boys’-club critocracy.

As such, the phat-pants kids level the term as a pejorative at geezers who can’t see past rock’s storied but antiquated constructs (shark-shagging shamanistic lead singer/elegantly wasted guitarist/vomit-asphyxiating drummer) and time-worn narratives (boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-starts-band-and-gets-girl-back-plus-free-drugs-and-picture-on-the-cover-of-Rolling-Stone).

These rockist guys-and they’re invariably guys-are bitterly irked and utterly befuddled by this crazy modern world of white rappers, Lolita lip-syncers and dance music fashioned by annoying gay robots from planet Neptune. Wigga, please. Life’s rich pageant is far too nuanced to be reduced to a narrow choice between Nick Hornby or American Idol.

First of all, the profession of music writing-or as goes the famous quote, dancing about architecture-has been brought low by years of editorial neglect, forced to subsist on a low-wage diet of beer money, free records and a pat on the head. Thus it no longer attracts the best and brightest. So there’s that.

Second, the way music is made and the way we consume it has changed radically since, say, Live Aid: better hair, “free” downloads, more thongs, less mousse and Pro Tools-style digital technology that allows musicians to defy the laws of physics, acoustics and gravity itself.

As a result, pop music has become sexier, more disposable and almost without exception head-fuckingly psychedelic. (Waiter, I’ll have whatever Timbaland’s smoking.) And because it’s largely free, we eat a lot more of it knowing full well that if we don’t, pop will eat itself.

Meanwhile, good rock music has once again become something exotic and otherly-a semisecret society replenishing itself annually with a steady diet of old myths and new tones. Or an aging confederacy of dunces, depending on which side of the rockist/anti-rockist seesaw you sit.

Me? I straddle the fulcrum. I see pop music as all of the above: good, bad and indifferent. I put rock music both beneath and above contempt depending on the time, the place and the tune.

For example, I think the new M.I.A. is way more important than the new Springsteen. M.I.A. is pan-cultural (a Sri Lankan living in London who toasts like a Jamaican), ecstatic (her music is legitimately fun for all ages) and more than a little subversive (her dad was a Tamil Tiger, hiding out in the mountains as a freedom fighter).

And Bruce is, well, doing pretty much what he’s always done: alternating between stadium-stuffing bar-band roughhousing and small-room, man-alone-with-a-guitar sepia-toned folk-blues-with the former being a little silly at this late date and the latter being a little dull.

Being able to make both the Boss and M.I.A. compute, I have a much bigger pillow to dream on. That’s the Third Way between the specious ultimatum: American Idol or Nick Hornby-which side are you on?

I play the ends against the middle. I get off on the shock of the new, but I don’t think that excuses you from doing your homework. There are more gigabytes to heaven and earth, Virginia, than is dreamt of on your iPod.

Never forget that, and you’ll be fine.